LONDON — It was March, the time tennis players look in the future—bright or bleak—and try to accept where they might go compared to where they had been. In the California desert, Roger Federer sounded like a man of acceptance.
“If I can’t play for No. 1,” he told the media at the BNB Paribas tournament in Indian Wells, “I’ll play for winning titles.”
We were skeptical doubters. He was 32 and living in a fantasy world. Come on, Rog, you wanted to tell him. It’s a younger man’s game.
But what we should have learned is that greatness is forever.
A pitcher loses his fastball, but the best develop sliders or other breaking balls. A quarterback has studied every defense for a decade and can anticipate where the linebackers will go.
And Roger Federer just keeps coming at you. And us.
Here he is, about a month from his 33rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Roger, and that’s some early present he’s given himself and the sport of tennis—another trip to another Wimbledon final, his ninth.
He’s won seven of the previous eight, the most recent in 2012. That was it, we figured. Especially after he was bumped in the second round last year. The second round. It was embarrassing and, we believed, telling. He was done.
Friday, Federer, smooth and cool as ever—and it was hard to be cool with the temperature above 80 degrees at Centre Court—broke serve in the first set and blitzed past one of the young pretenders to the throne, 23-year-old Milos Raonic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
That sent the Swiss master, who is seeded No. 4, against the tournament’s No. 1 seed, and another of the old guard, Novak Djokovic, 27, who defeated Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7) in the other semi.
It’s not a shock that two of the so-called Big Four are in a Wimbledon final a fourth straight year, but nobody figured one of the two would be Federer. Maybe not even Federer.
“After last year I was happy to get through the first round,” he told the BBC immediately after leaving the court against Raonic. “I didn’t play so well last year. But today I played great tennis under pressure.
“I’m unbelievably proud of what I’ve done here over the years. I can walk these grounds feeling good. I don’t have another 10 (years) left, but I get another chance to go through the emotions.”
Federer has adapted to changes in his game and lifestyle. His wife, Mirka, recently gave birth to a second set of twins. Traveling with infants can be hectic and make an athlete feel hassled, even though the family has help. You tend to think of yourself as a father more than a champion.
Yet Federer has always played graceful, timeless tennis, so smooth, so effective. Serving was never his strength, but when he needed a big serve to save a game—or a match—he produced it.
Grass-court tennis was his game. As Djokovic, who has a Wimbledon win himself, pointed out after the finals were set, “This is where he has had the most success in his career, winning many titles.
“He’s been looking very good throughout the whole tournament, very dominant with his matches. You know, I’m sure he wants to win this title as much as I do.”
We do know. Federer thinks like a winner. Now and then he’s complained, grumped about a lines person’s call, grumbled about a sore back. But regardless, he went on court and played, balls leaving his racquet with a purpose.
“My game’s back where I hoped it would be from a year ago,” said Federer. “Things were difficult all of last year. I’m so happy. I worked hard off the court to get myself back into shape. I’ve reached a lot of semis and finals. I also got two titles already.
“I think that really gave me confidence I could go a step further.”
Such a fragile thing, confidence. The age-old question is whether winning breeds confidence or confidence breeds winning. When Federer was at his peak, he knew he would succeed. And so did the people who faced him.
But miss a couple of forehands, get broken at serve, and when you’re in your 30s—Andre Agassi made it to the 2005 U.S. Open final at age 35 but was beaten by a 24-year-old Federer—everyone says you’re finished. Indeed, we were saying that about Federer. Until the last few days.
“The fun for me,” said Federer on Friday, “is being able to do it, at this age, with a family, with the team I have. We have a great relationship. I know so many people over time now on the tour, so it’s something I really, really enjoy.”
Naturally, he was asked what it would rank among his achievements, mainly the record 17 Grand Slam victories, if he became the oldest man to win a Slam in the modern era.
“Not so important,” he said. “I would know if it would be really important to me. But it’s not.”
We'll have to take his word for it.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.